Grammy award-winning gospel artist Shirley Caesar has been a part of my life for the better part of three decades. We met when I was 16. Up until that point, I had only heard the sweet forcefulness of her voice on my parent's scratchy records. Still, the way that she sang - no shouted - the word of God left an impression. So much so that one day I called directory assistance in Durham, N.C., got her number and then proceeded to dial it. Caesar picked up, and we have remained in touch ever since.
Those calls continue to this day. And it was during a recent conversation about faith that she matter-of-factly remarked, "I have access to God." The topic was what we have to be thankful about this Thanksgiving.
And, of course, she is right. Religion really ought to be the vital element of our Thanksgiving because there is nothing we should be more urgent about giving thanks for then our spirituality. I just wish I had thought of that before offering my list of things to be thankful for, which included guzzling turkey and pumpkin pie until you pass out from sheer sensory overload and watching canned cranberries dribble down my brother Kent's chin cleft while he eats.
Well, just the thought of Kent's crimson stained chin does bring me joy. But food and family are no God substitute.
Caesar came to this profound conclusion several years ago, as her mother lay ill in bed. "I prayed and prayed and asked God to spare the life of my mom," recalls Caesar. "I was praying my will. But at all times we must remember to pray the will of God. A lot of times the Lord will take a loved one while they are on the bed of affliction, while he has their attention, because the Lord knows the ends. When my mother passed, for a while, I was angry at heaven. But the Lord let me know that this is not the end, this is to be continued."
Since then, Caesar and her abiding belief in God's will have been inseparable.
Armed with faith, Caesar embarked on her life's calling - gospel music. To date, Mrs. Caesar has won 10 Grammy awards, 12 "Stellar" awards and 17 "Dove" awards. Of course, she was born with a gifted voice, but it was her faith, her attempt to distill the spirit of God into her music that has made her successful.
"When I walk into a recording studio," explains Caesar, "I do not know what I'm going to sing. I just think of the Lord, and the words flow out. The Lord knows what to give us to say ... the Lord just gives the words to me on the spot."
Having achieved success by giving herself wholly to faith, Caesar is deeply optimistic about the role religion can play in other people's lives.
"Young people don't know how to really trust God. They need to get teaching in Sunday school. They have to know how to hear things. Moms and dads need to make sure their children go to church . churches where spiritual soul food is being taught to them. You have to teach young people how to take God at his word. One of the ways that you can keep your family is to develop a prayer life in that home."
This advice, like her song, is very much the result of what Caesar refers to as her "access to God." It is that deep core of faith, that unwavering belief in the Lord's will that lifts her voice and hauls her life along. For this, she is most thankful.
As are we.